Editor’s note: This is the third of a four-part series looking at local drug problems and ongoing efforts to address them at the local and state levels. The final story will focus on efforts by Eastern Panhandle professionals who are working in conjunction with the governor’s Substance Abuse Task Force which holds regional meetings throughout the state.
CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — The idea of synthetic drugs – with street names like K2 and Spice – is new to many people, especially parents who aren’t familiar with youngsters using e-cigarette or “vaping” pens to smoke them.
But these issues are already getting attention at the state level, and that’s especially important given the drug-use issues recently reported among area young people – including some Washington High School students, local officials agree.
Jefferson County officials learned in September that a cluster of patients with adverse health effects from Washington High went to the Jefferson Medical Center emergency room experiencing confusion, paranoia and thoughts of suicide, rapid heartbeat and some breathing difficulties after reportedly using synthetic drugs in vaping pens.
Dr. Sheri Hoff, attendance director for Jefferson County Schools, explained the situation to board of education members at a meeting last month – when she also stressed the need for parents and community members to understand what’s at stake.
“Back in February or March, we started to see a resurgence in LSD in the community, and then we began to see a similar resurgence of a synthetic that had similar hallucinogenic effects as LSD,” Hoff said.
“And we had a number of children involved with synthetic marijuana, known as DOC, which is also a hallucinogen. We’ve seen it from middle school students last spring through high school students this fall, and it also crosses all socio-economic status in our community. We’ve seen children who are in honors programs, the general child as well as children who struggle because it is across the board,” she said.
Proactive measures this fall included staff development for all physical education and drivers education teachers, focusing on synthetics drugs and how that can be tied into the curriculum, Hoff said.
Washington High Principal Judy Marcus said educating students on potential drug dangers has been a priority so they will not be drawn to vaping pens. “These pens are sleek and pretty, but you don’t know what’s in them. So we’ve also been telling them not to take anything from anyone else, and also don’t take anything from anyone else,” she said.
Education, not punishment has been the goal, Marcus said. In addition, drug dogs will be brought into the school at unannounced dates, she said.
Charles Town Middle School Principal Tim Sites, who spoke at the same board meeting, said there haven’t been any problems with synthetic drugs at his facility, but there have been “several instances of the vaping pens that have contained flavored liquid and nicotine. Parents are upset about this, because they are either stealing from them or their siblings, and these things are expensive.”
SKINNER: COLLABORATION HAS BEEN SUCCESSFUL
There is good news, however.
“I’m glad to be able to say that we had two pieces of significant legislation this year to address some of the issues we’ve recently been hearing about, specifically addressing cathinodes and bath salts,” said Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, who was one of several panelists to participate in a public forum held Oct. 15 at Washington High that drew a large audience of concerned parents, students and citizens.
Skinner, who also credited Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and local officials, said the collaborative effort represents significant progress.
“I would say that we now have one of the best synthetic drug laws in the United States. And I would say we’ve also been a lot more mobile in Charleston than they have in Washington when it comes to keeping up with these drug problems,” he said.
“Policy wise we are trying very hard to keep up with these kinds of problems, working in conjunction with law enforcement and prosecutors. I bet any of these products now being sold in Jefferson County are not legal, and could be prosecuted,” Skinner said.
LAWRENCE: LOOKING AHEAD
Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, said she is happy these issues are getting attention because they are important regionally as well as in other counties across the state.
However, Eastern Panhandle counties are in a unique situation due to their geographic proximity to major drug centers like Baltimore, which helps account for a large percentage of the local heroin supply, she said.
Lawrence said she has also been working on related issues such as the need for additional drug treatment and mental health facilities.
“There really is a lack of services here in our region, so we are working on the end goal of having a rehab center here so that we don’t have to take our youth and adults either across West Virginia or other state’s borders to get treatment for substance abuse issues,” she said at the forum.
The Healing Place of Huntington, which provides a long-term residential recovery program for alcohol and drug addiction, is being studied by legislators as a possible model, Lawrence said.
Both delegates are also proud of their successful efforts to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors, and said it may be possible to “tweak it, or find other ways to include vaping products.”
Lawrence, said she and other legislators had been working on the e-cigarette issue for about four years efforts that included “questions, comments and collaboration” from Washington High officials who were concerned about their students using these devices.
“So we can all take a lot of satisfaction in knowing the changes we wanted are now in the state code, especially since this legislation was a long time coming,” she said.
“But another very real problem is how young people have been putting other substances into the cartridges that come with e-cigarettes. And even law enforcement can have trouble determining what is in it, although there have been cases of synthetic drugs being smoked,” Lawrence said.
As a result, Lawrence said her “next priority” is to get law enforcement identification kits also known as quick kits, she said for use in Jefferson County.
“That way, if there is a derivative substance that’s now in code, they can detect it and detect it early so the substance doesn’t have to be shipped off somewhere else to be identified,” she said.
FEDERAL ACTION UNDERWAY
By design, e-cigarettes heat up quickly and vaporize liquid some are flavored, others include nicotine that comes with it in a small cartridge. However, the new trend nationally is to instead dissolve other substances like powdered cocaine or synthetic drugs, including bath salts, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In April, FDA officials announced plans to extend the agency’s tobacco authority to related but unregulated products such as e-cigarettes, nicotine gels, waterpipe (hookah) tobacco and dissolvables not already under its authority.